Cartographer of North America

A young man from the Saintonge region with a gift for drawing, Champlain joined the Service des Logis of Henri IV’s army in 1592. This organization was essentially an intelligence agency that collected information used to determine the provisioning of soldiers and troop movements and gathered intelligence about enemy positions. Its members produced maps of the regions they travelled through and sketched images of enemy strongholds. As part of this corps, the young Champlain received his training in Brittany during the war against the Duke de Mercœur’s Spanish and League forces.
 
After peace was concluded between France and Spain at Vervins in 1598, Champlain accompanied one of his maternal uncles who had been tasked with repatriating the Spanish garrison of the citadel of Blavet in Brittany. Once in Andalusia, he was forced to join one of the crews of the West Indies fleet which was setting sail for Ibero-America. Between 1599 and 1600, he travelled in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and recorded his voyage in a manuscript account richly illustrated withs maps and drawings of animals, plants and towns, which he presented to Henri IV.

Made a court geographer, Champlain was sent by the king to the Saint Lawrence Valley in 1603. Based on this “faithful report", he wrote Des Sauvages, his first published book, which came out in late 1603. Between 1604 to 1607, he explored Acadia and took an active role in the founding of this colony. Then, in 1608, he was tasked with founding Quebec and subsequently supervised the colonization of the Saint Lawrence Valley. He published an annotated collection of his maps under the title Voyages, which was dated 1613, though did not go on sale until 1614.

Artisan of Alliances

 
In New France, the colonial settlements were funded by a fur trade monopoly granted by the King to a Lieutenant General and managed by a commercial company. As a result, good relationships with Indigenous hunters were essential for their survival. Working under the authority of a series of Lieutenant Generals, Champlain, therefore, set about expanding these Franco-Indigenous alliances. In Acadia, his explorations led to encounters with groups he called the Etchemins (Wolastoqiyik) and the Almouchiquois. Since the latter were farmers and had few forests in which fur-bearing animals could be hunted, however, these exchanges were not very fruitful and even sometimes ended in the killing of Frenchmen, as was the case in Port-Fortuné on October 15, 1606.

In the Saint Lawrence Valley, despite hoping to establish a general peace between all the Indigenous nations, Champlain found himself embroiled in their ongoing conflicts. In 1609, at Ticonderoga, he played a decisive role in the victory against the Mohawks, the eastern most nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederation. Another victory followed the next year, near the confluent of the Richelieu and Saint Lawrence Rivers, but, in 1615, he failed to take over a village of the Onondaga, a western Haudenosaunee nation, at the south of Lake Ontario.

These battles allowed Champlain to forge lasting alliances with the Innu (Montagnais), Algonquins and Wendat (Huron). After being wounded during the siege of the Onondaga village, Champlain was forced to spend the winter of 1615-1616 among the Wendat. During this period, he was greatly impressed by the people, sedentary farmers who seemed to him to be especially likely to become Christians, as he explained in the text and illustrations of his new Voyages, published in 1619.

Champlain's Christian, Multi-Racial Vision

As a devout Catholic, Champlain was concerned about the salvation of the Indigenous peoples. Influenced by the Récollet missionaries, whom he started bringing to Quebec in 1615, he envisioned a New France in which Indigenous people would be Christianized and “frenchified” by living among French Catholics and farmers. As he explained to a group of Indigenous chiefs in 1633, “our sons will marry your daughters, and we will live as a single people”.
 
But he would have to deal with a series of trading companies that proved reluctant to send over more colonists and missionaries due to their preoccupation with making their monopoly over the fur trade as profitable as possible. One consequence of Quebec’s dependency on France for food was its capture by the English under Kirke in 1629. Champlain was disgraced but managed to exonerate himself thanks to his final Voyages which were published in 1632.
 
As a result of these difficulties, Champlain’s health deteriorated, and he died in Quebec on December 25, 1635. The site of his grave remains unknown but is still sought out since Champlain remains a venerated figure among the French-speaking community of North America. 

 

Published in may 2021